Monday, 17 September 2018

Suburban riddles

The houses are going up along Gap Road, and I’m a worried man. I’m sad about the Turner block being cut up, but not with the presence of more housing itself. The outer northern layer of the town has had its long term density settled in the Structure Plan, and with no prospect of greater density, the owner decided to subdivide. It had to happen some time.

The earthworks for the new owners have swept all before, grinding terrain into easier shapes for the humans. The roos have fled north to quieter habitat. They are camped out in Barrm Birrm and come down in big mobs to the road verges at night for the grass. The creek flat below my house sees regular visits from an extended family. They have been displaced, but they are mobile and they will adapt. None of this worries me.

What worries me is the houses. Facing the street, not the sun. Without eaves, the body of the house built to its edges like a bulbous muffin. I don’t understand: why would you not build a house to invite in the warmth of the winter sun, and shade you from the wild summer heat? How long have we known this? How much longer will it take for the realisation that we live in a world of sun and seasons to seep into the drafting rooms of project home builders and into the aspirations of their clients? 

What worries me is the absence of regard for the natural world evident in building a residence in ignorance or bloody minded defiance of something as simple as the way the sun travels across the sky. That same lack of regard enables a man to back his truck into Barrm Birrm, just off Royal Parade, and dump a load of earth and gravel. That same defiance of an order other than self-interest is what enables another man, and yes I’ll put money on them being men, to drive his 4WD deep into the woodlands and empty the unwanted contents of his garage.

Combine this self-serving individualism with a town planning regime which aspires only to manage the excesses of developers, and we’re really in trouble. Architecture critic Owen Hatherley on Radio National’s Blueprint for Living thinks that what makes the European city different to the Anglo-Saxon ‘unplanned, car-centred, developer-led urban norm’ is a tradition of planning where what is desired and valued is built into the urban fabric, through deliberation with citizens. We colonials have been consulted and consulted on the future of Riddells and the Macedon Ranges, but precious little of the considered opinion of citizens has made it into our town plan or the new Statement of Planning Policy for Macedon Ranges (go to for an infuriating update). 

We think we’re separate, a species apart, while all around the season surges from cold to warmth and on into heat. A kilometre up the bitumen from the Turner block, Barrm Birrm is coming into its springtime shifts. The wattles are blooming and fading in succession, the delicate hardenbergia bursts purple underfoot. 

Soon will come the lilies, and then finally the grasses, their orange heads of seed on a single stalk sprung skywards from a fine shimmer of green.

I’m with Billy Bragg: “The only antidote to cynicism is activism.” Join me Saturday 22 September, 10-12, then again on 20 October at the same time, at the junction of Gap Road and Royal Parade, to clear weed trees in Barrm Birrm. If you’re handy with a 4WD pickup, a chainsaw, a pruning saw or mattock, bring them. You’ll improve your acacia identification skills as we hunt and destroy Cootamundra, Sallow and Ovens Valley Wattles. Along the way, we’ll be surrounded by Barrm Birrm’s springtime show of lilies and orchids, and a kangaroo or three.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Thursday, 30 August 2018

What if we thought of Barrm Birrm as a Park?

In the depths of winter, I drove north to Darwin, and came home with my soul full of this big land and park management on my mind. 

Yellow Waters, Kakadu National Park

Ulluru, on Anangu Country

It was still winter in Riddells, and the weeds and veggies had barely moved, but two new houses on Gap Road had their framing up, and another bush block ‘for Nature Lovers’ was up for sale.

You know what it's like when you come back from a good trip: half of me was still at Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The National Park is a case study in crowd control. The week before our stay, the camping ground stretched to 2000 people a night, in caravans, trailers and tents. Then there’s the four hotels and a couple of low-rise apartment complexes. All full: the winter months brought us greying nomads in droves, and it was the school holidays too.

Most of us were up before dawn, off to watch the dawn break over Uluru or Kata Tjuta, and quite few came back for the sunset, bulging 4wds and campers disgorging happy campers at strategically located car parks to sip vino and wait for that precise moment when the big rock turns bright crimson, a brief flare of luminous light before it sinks into the darkening horizon. 

Again, as it has for a long time.

We were all pretty well-behaved, but then, we were all very well managed. Excellent places from which to view the attractions, with good gravel paths and unobtrusive fencing to keep us in. Sealed roads, no access for off-road driving, good signage, toilets, water points on walks, thoughtful routes, and information at key points to tell us what we were looking at and how it was once used.

The Park is under joint management with the Anangu people, and a high point for me was a video at the Cultural Centre on the 1975 handback. People talked about what the handback meant to them. They were proud to have legal title to their Country, and happy that so many people now come and enjoy the Park, but behind the spectacle of this Park is the politics of white and black. Friends in Alice Springs told us the community is unhappy, ans that many feel that few benefits have flowed through to the community. Aboriginal heritage brings in the visitors, but just what ‘joint management’ means is an on-going struggle.

When I got home, I took a walk through Barrm Birrm, 120 hectares of bush uphill of Royal Parade and Gap Road in Riddells Creek. Eroding tracks run off into this place of many yams, a beautiful but troubled no-man’s land. Sub-divided into 165 lots in 1975, there’s never been permission to build. People hoped there might be, but the conservation value of the area now has priority.

Grsslands meet forest in the woodlands of Barrm Birrm

Who manages this de facto park? Precisely …. no-one. With no signs saying what you can and can’t do, and no fence to keep people out, Barrm Birrm showcases the best and worst of human nature. In the last two months: a truck-sized dump of soil and three trailer-sized dumps of garage rubbish; winter wood gathering and a frenzied axe attack on a cluster of trees; a deer shot, alive and left to bleed out, two foxes shot and laid out as trophies, a dumped sheep and a steel trap with a kangaroo leg in it. 

It's open season on deer at Barrm Birrm

Exotic acacias blooming. Tracks eroding. Bikes and 4WDs bashing more tracks to get around fallen trees. Spring will bring city campers who don’t know this is private land or the damage they do. When I despair, I think of the long game:

“Once a multiplicity of nourishing terrains, there is now a multiplicity of devastations. And yet, the relationship between Indigenous people and country persists. It is not a contract but a covenant, and no matter what the damage, people care.” (Deborah Bird Rose, 1996)

Come to Riddells Landcare’s AGM 15 September, 2-4 to find out what you can do to look after Barrm Birrm, and to learn from Yvonne Cabuang, Waterwatch Coordinator, what’s in our creeks. Then join us Saturday 22 September, 10-12, junction of Gap Road and Royal Parade, to clear rubbish and weed trees in Barrm Birrm and set priorities. If you’re handy with a 4WD pickup or a chainsaw, bring them. 

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Sunday, 8 July 2018

In the company of others

In Landcare, we exclude people who are different. People of colour. People who pray three times a day to Allah. People with tats. Young people. People inventing other versions of Australian than ocker or gentleman farmer.

We’re at a Landcare Forum. As she says this, the Landcare coordinator knows she’s edging onto thin ice. Landcare groups assume they welcome everyone. But the coordinator tells us that the Green Army team that worked for her Landcare Network for six months last year (the ones with the tats and all considerably younger than the members of the Landcare committee) had told her—‘We feel we’re outsiders here’. And the coordinator herself has noticed a tendency for men to speak first at Landcare gatherings, and for women to speak later, and often only when they insist on being heard.

Volunteers and staff from across Landcare in Victoria gather twice a year, and this time we're on the Bellarine Peninsula. After an afternoon looking at nearby Landcare work, and a convivial dinner, 45 of us have convened to share with each other what is getting stronger in the way we work in our communities, and to reflect on where Landcare needs to break new ground.

Being more inclusive is one area where Landcare needs to break new ground. We talk around the issue, move away from it, then come back. It’s a difficult subject. And as we talk, another tough question surfaces: what is Landcare’s role now? Many of the valleys have been treed up. Properties have their shelterbelts and are fenced so the landscape can be better managed. The proportion of people who want to change have changed. What’s next? As a community-led movement, Landcare has done a lot in its 30 years, but how can it hold its sense of purpose?

These forums, run by Landcare’s advocacy organisation, Landcare Victoria Inc, are a time to go back to fundamentals. Landcare members want to remain effective in the social landscapes in which they operate, and they want communities and government to understand the role Landcare plays. Communities are changing, government policy is changing. Having been successful in the past is no protection against obsolescence, and our idea of who we are may need an up-grade.

As we move through the weekend, we talk a lot about how to get younger people into Landcare. The challenge of inclusiveness and the challenge of relevance join together in this bedevilling issue of how to speak to younger people. The grey haired elders who started the Landcare movement 30 years ago as young adults sit and ponder how to pass on the torch to a very different generation. There’s deep listening going on, and respect for differing points of view. We don’t all immediately agree that there is a problem with our inclusiveness, but we come back to it, rather than dismiss it. We know we need to rethink our role, but this is a big question from which many paths open.

Sometimes it feels like we’re going round in circles. But we are experienced enough to know that to break new ground, you do have to move around and go back over things to get the measure of a situation. And we’re mature enough to tolerate uncertainty without needing immediate answers.

By the end of the weekend, I feel that the world has tilted a bit for all of us, and that the difficult questions that have been raised are there now, in our shared awareness. We will need to make room and give them attention. But in the company of others, we can do that. We learn and reinvent together, and revive our spirits in the process.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Indoor Landcare

I’m at my desk on one of those blessed sunny mid-winter days, doing some indoor Landcare. Paul, a long-term Landcare member down Gippsland way, was wont to protest, when he showed up at a Landcare conference, that there was too much bloody indoor Landcare and whatever happened to outdoor Landcare! Paul had left the Melbourne scene in his twenties and settled on 40 acres of old dairy country in West Gippsland, where he proceeded to fatten a few steers and run his van on used cooking oil and rehabilitate Archies Creek.

When I visited his property on a field trip in 2005, the creek had been transformed from an eroded gully into a light and airy temperate rainforest. Paul said he hadn’t had to do much, just knock the weeds off and let the seedbank spring back, and the birds had done the rest, bringing in seeds from the remnant bush around. When he’d got started on his place, he’d worked upstream on his neighbour’s bit of the creek, and downstream too.

Some seed dropped into me that day, the idea of a lovely bit of creek to look after, and when I trundled up Gap Road one stinking hot summer day ten years ago, I found my creek. So thanks Paul for showing me what was possible, though I have to make the point yet again that it just isn’t enough to do the outdoor stuff. Indoor Landcare is important too, because it’s the place where we work out how to govern ourselves.

It’s easy to get fixated on government and what it is and isn’t doing, when government is just one player in the collective business of governing. An intricate mix of hierarchies and social networks wraps itself around each place and issue in the landscape, and that social web is where we think about what is happening to the landscape, and work out how to repair the damage done. ‘Natural resource management’ we call it, in our technocratic way—‘NRM’ for short. And ‘integrated catchment management’, to situate ourselves in the living landscape (‘a catchment’) and prompt us to integrate and not work in isolation. Alongside those terms, and older than them, there’s Landcare, land care, to remind us that caring for the land is the ethic that should underpin our governing.

Imagine a collection of people sitting around a map, governing. They are listening to each other’s understanding of what is happening to the land. Each is from a particular place in the governance structure—a community group, the Council, Melbourne Water or Parks Victoria. As they listen, they get a more complete picture and begin to get at why things happen the way they do—that is, the drivers behind the bad and stupid things damaging the environment. Out of all that talk and analysis, we hope they pull together wise decisions that influence what humans are doing. That’s all we can do in governing—influence what humans do.

This is indoor Landcare. It is a rational process, allocating effort where it will make most difference, but it is also a delicate negotiation between differing perspectives and interests. Our role as community members is to trust what we know and speak out, to learn how government works and treat those who work there with respect, and when decisions are made, to make sure they are put into action. Then to meet again, to learn from what happens, and keep the pressure on.

To keep going, indoors and outdoors.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Joining the dots

We swarm around the pieces of paper the on the walls of meeting room, putting on our dots. There are maybe 35 of us, people from Landcare groups, Friends of groups, Melbourne Water and Shire staff. We all care for the environment, as an aspiration and as a practice. We are the top of the Macedon Regional Park, in the cafĂ© by the Cross, to review progress on the Macedon Ranges Shire Council’s Biodiversity Strategy.

We had started with the country itself, where we came from, then, projected on a wall, a map showing connectivity in biodiversity of the Shire. Green spreads out from larger cores of land, north and south, east and west, like filaments of nerve cells. We see where the connections flag and thin to less than 150 metre gaps between large trees. That’s the distance at which woodland birds will not traverse open country, for fear of predators (Sophie Bickford from the Central Victorian Biolinks Alliance thinks 80-100m is a truer limit).

This map is quite a lot to take in! I could happily have spent half an hour with a few people talking about this map, but we are onto the next task, then the next, until we have in front of us A3 sheets with the possible lines of action. 

They’re all terrific things to do, and they are our ideas, drawn together by Krista, who has the job of pulling the Biodiversity Strategy together. Educating landholders about land management. Ramping up requirements on new developments to plan for the environment. Ensuring that zoning and planning provisions lead to protection of native vegetation. Educating staff and Councillors themselves so they understand the challenges we face in Macedon Ranges. Giving people living in our towns and children in schools ways to connect to nature and understand the bush. Supporting community environment groups.

We’ve done some assessment of these actions, and now it’s time to prioritise. We each have six gold dots, to represent the time and money we have to get things done. Where should these go? A scrum forms along the wall as we scan the options and make our choices. We’re each trying to hold the whole system in mind and sense what will make most difference. In 15 minutes it’s done. We break off into twos and threes, in conversation over muffins and hot drinks.

But the next day I feel unfinished. We didn’t talk about why we each distributed our dots as we did. We each had a hold of the big picture, but we’re didn’t talk about strategy – that is, how a bit of this and a bit of that could combine to change our situation in the Shire. We didn’t join the dots. Instead we lined up the solutions in a row, and targeted each of the players individually - environment groups, townies, blockies, farmers, developers, Council.

But in natural resource management, what makes the difference will be how those people interact. It’s the same as with biodiversity, but here it’s not bugs and soil and plants, but us humans in a social system. As with ecosystems, the relationships are where the life of the system exists. We all know this, but when we put on the dots and rank one item against another, our systems thinking stays silent.

For the Biodiversity Strategy, the devil will be in the details of the money and staff time the Shire budgets for these actions, but also in the way actions will work together to shift existing relationships. This needs discussion. When you’ve been building an addition to your house, or pulling out your summer garden, or putting in new drainage, you lean on the shovel and looking at what you’ve done, and let it sink in. You think about what’s next.

We need to do this locally, in each part of the Shire. The forces affecting biodiversity come together in unique ways in each part of the Shire, and the Biodiversity Strategy will only generate strategic action if we find a way to keep talking locally and join the dots.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,